21st Century Manhattan Project

That was the term I used for virtual humans back in 2013 during a TedX talk “Analog Soul – Digital World.” I argued that avatars would progress to the point where their impact would reach far beyond just their intended use. Looks like we’re one step closer to that, courtesy of Neon.

examples of Neon’s virtual humans

Part of the Samsung Technology and Advanced Research (STAR) lab, Neon promises photo-real avatars with “real” emotions and behaviors. These aren’t designed to be knowledge retrieval bots (e.g. “what’s the weather going to be today”), but rather companions that cohabitate our personal and likely professional spaces. Neon talks about them being a “new species.” I’ve argued against that even being possible (analog-digital conundrum – see Emulsional Worlds for more details). But either way, virtual humans are here and will become more pervasive in the coming years.

This begs a number of issues around privacy and policy. For instance, do they have rights? Can you abuse a virtual human? Who “owns” the virtual human? Who owns what the virtual human says or does?

Between robots, avatars, and the unending quest for consumer convenience, we’re hurtling into a world where the analog rules of order don’t necessarily apply, so we’ll have to invent new ones. Typically with technology advances this happens after some cataclysmic event. Perhaps it is time to try and be a bit more pre-emptive in the analysis of tech implications and only have to respond to semi-cataclysmic events? Time will tell.

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